On Friday morning, ABC’s digital news operation posted a number of stories that effectively assisted the Trump re-election campaign in building its email list.
Some of the network’s largest affiliates posted an identical piece of content on their websites promoting a “birthday card” for President Donald Trump. The card is actually a petition website created by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee to harvest email addresses that can be used during the 2020 campaign.
“Happy Birthday, Mr. President!” the stories read. “To help him celebrate, the GOP has made him a digital birthday card... Those who want to leave their well wishes can do so on the GOP’s website.”
A spokesperson for ABC’s affiliate stations told The Daily Beast that the piece was initially posted “by an overnight producer at one of our local stations and they did not follow the station’s editorial standards.” Additional stations, which are free to draw content from other ABC affiliates, then posted their own versions.
“The story has since been taken down,” the spokesperson said.
Prior to its removal, each story linked to a page created by an RNC-affiliated group at donaldjtrump.com, the Trump campaign’s website. The page encourages visitors to hand over their names, email addresses, phone numbers, and zip codes.
The Trump campaign has made a push on Friday to use Trump’s 73rd birthday to harvest as much voter information as it can. It’s fairly typical for political campaigns to use such occasions to try to beef up the lists of voters and supporters that they can later target for fundraising or activation.
It’s far less typical for a news organization to lend its resources to such an effort. The ABC affiliates’ stories amounted to explicit promotions of a political candidate’s list-building efforts, just as the 2020 campaign kicks into high gear.
At least five ABC owned-and-operated affiliates ran the piece before it was purged, including stations broadcasting in the major media markets of New York, Philadelphia, and Houston. The string of stories was first spotted by a Twitter user who monitors Trump campaign fundraising emails.
Such content is not unprecedented. Time magazine ran a similar item on its website in 2010 recognizing President Barack Obama’s birthday. Laden with syrupy language—”Shhhhh…don’t ruin the surprise”—the story encouraged readers to sign a “birthday card” that harvested emails for Obama’s political operation.
ABC’s since-deleted items on Trump’s birthday did acknowledge how campaigns tend to use such lists. “Anyone is welcome to sign and leave a personal message,” the affiliates’ stories state. “However, an email address is required to send a submission—meaning senders should expect a slew of emails in their inbox.”
At least one non-ABC local news network also promoted the Trump campaign’s birthday card list-building page. The Gray Television-owned Cleveland 19 News, a CBS affiliate, put the link to the Trump campaign page directly in a tweet.
“Happy Birthday Mr. President!” the station wrote. “You can leave a message for Donald Trump on his official birthday card here.” That tweet remains live.